From Rockband to Monsters and Why These Devs are Happier for It
Bryn Bennett and Steven Kimura started working in the videogame industry around 1998 and have a history with notable companies (Irrational, Harmonix) and big games (Bioshock, Rockband). Now, more than 10 years later they’ve struck out on their own as an independent studio called Eerie Canal with their first new project: Dreadline.
Joined by “sound dude” Arthur Inasi and artist Mallika Sundaramurthy, as well as Aaron DeMuth who has been working on the game’s UI and also animated Dreadline’s recently revealed teaser trailer, the two have ventured outside of mainstream development to finally bring some of their own videogame ideas to life.
The idea for Dreadline first came about while Bennet and Kimura were conspiring one night at a bar in Cambridge. Speaking to Rock, Paper Shotgun, Bennet recalled the evening, “[W]e started talking about playing as the monsters instead of the humans, and the idea for Dreadline came together nearly instantly. We were cracking up, and knew we were on to something.”
“I’ve never had this much control before which is both exciting and terrifying”
In the game, players control a team of monsters tasked with traveling back in time to different historic calamities and killing those who were destined to die anyway. “Dreadline,” exclaims the teaser’s narrator is a game, “Where time is running out, for those who have run out of time.”
Several months into the game’s development the project has been fueled by a combustible mix of fear and eager delight. “I’ve never had this much control before which is both exciting and terrifying,” Kimura told me in an email. “I’m hoping that it only helps the project since any of us could go back and work for another AAA developer again.”
Writing at the studio’s blog, Bennett described a similar feeling. Without anyone else interfering in the creative effort the team is able to explore an interesting but risky concept with total control. “I’ve been working on AAA titles in the games industry for over 10 years now, and I LOVE being able to work on a piece of fiction that no big studio would touch because it’s so out there,” wrote Bennet. “We don’t have marketing departments testing it against different demographics, or lawyers getting really nervous. Maybe that’s a bad thing, but I’m digging it right now.”
“Huge budgets ruin everything,” Kimura told me. “It’s even worse than Hollywood or television.”
It’s the same story popping up everywhere. Team sizes grow, game budgets balloon, and pretty soon no one is willing to take any risks because of the amount of money that’s on the line. Hollywood is now notorious for its addiction to sequels and adaptations, striving for new franchises rather than exploring original ideas through individual movies.
“Huge budgets ruin everything,” Kimura told me. “It’s even worse than Hollywood or television.” Bennett agreed. “As someone who has been both a professional musician and a game developer, I really hate to see how safe game publishers and record labels play the game. I understand that they have to hit their bottom lines, but the end result is a lot of stagnation. I’m really excited about the new indie game movement. It’s breathing a lot of new life into our medium.”
But he also sees the way the way that mainstream videogame development is evolving and thinks the differences between bigger studios and indie ones will only continue to grow. In an interview with Brandon Foster, Bennett remarked on the widening divide between both camps.
“When you look at game jobs posted these days, they’re looking for specialists. You don’t see single posts asking for experience with animation, UI, art, and graphics. You’ll see something as specific as ‘client network programmer.’ That’s cool, but I think it’s a little unfortunate. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in every area of game programming. I don’t think the future of game programming will be that way unless you’re working on your own project or in a small studio environment.”
“It was a creative process driven by individuals and their personal predilections.”
According to Bennett, programming for indie studios is like it was for everyone else back in the 90s where, “you have a ton of options in front of you and you can just go crazy.”
I asked him how different making games is now compared to when he first started. “Completely different,” Bennett answered. “The first games I worked on where always a complete nightmare, but the games would evolve in an intuitive and experimental way. It was a creative process driven by individuals and their personal predilections.”
However, “These days, large studios will do absolutely anything they can to minimize risk,” he said. “That determines everything, from the games they chose to make, to the tiers of management that get invented, to the tone of each and every one of the countless meetings it becomes your job to attend. As far as I am concerned, that process couldn’t be better designed to suck the personality out of your life, and your work.”
This bureaucratization is part of why Bennett and Kimura decided to go independent
This bureaucratization is part of why Bennett and Kimura decided to go independent and leave Harmonix. However, Kimura told me the decision to leave wasn’t easy. “Walking away from a great company, filled with your friends was difficult,” he explained.
Working at established studios with larger teams also has its benefits. Bennett has enjoyed having more control over the project he’s working on, but that includes other responsibilities as well. “Dealing with the business side of things is always tough. I’ve had to do it before, but it’s not something I’m excited about.”
For Kimura, the new freedom that comes with being independent has been somewhat of a challenge. “The hardest thing about working on your own is finding something to get really excited about, when you have the freedom to do whatever you want. So much of my career in video games has been about working within, and pushing against constraints.”
But ultimately the tradeoff was worth it. “Trying to do fresh and creative work on an entirely unsavory project that you’d never even consider doing on your own is both exhausting and unrewarding,” said Kimura. “I’ve been very lucky to work with a lot of great people, but I’ve only ever really been happy working on my own projects.”
a frantic but lighthearted cross between Diablo and Starcraft
And without leaving Harmonix Kimura wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do just that. Despite its uncertainty and inherent challenges, going indie has allowed both he and Bennett to form Eerie Canal and start working on Dreadline.
The game will allow players to control a team of eccentric monsters and revolve around getting them to work together to complete levels before the disaster for that level strikes, leading to a speed-run element that encourages replaying levels to achieve better finishing times.
Describing the core gameplay, Bennett called it a frantic but lighthearted cross between Diablo and Starcraft. Like a hybrid-lite version of both games, the Diablo inspired RPG elements won’t be as involved as Blizzard’s loot collecting tour de force, and the RTS aspect won’t be as involve as Starcraft.
“So many games use the same basic rendering equations that a lot of them are starting to look the same.”
Bennett doesn’t consider Dreadline to be casual though, saying that while they might consider going in that direction if they ever make a mobile version, its PC incarnation will be more hardcore.
The game’s defining features though are its characters and premise. Extolling the virtues of writing your own game engine, Bennett likes how doing so has allowed the team to closely control the look and feel of the game. “So many games use the same basic rendering equations that a lot of them are starting to look the same. One thing I wanted to do with Dreadline is to mimic how Steven’s sketches look,” Bennett said in a blog post. “They have a very innocent and hand sketched quality that I thought would be a great counterpoint to running around and killing people as monsters.”
His blunt summation of what players do in the game, while funny and intriguing to some, offended others. Rounding up several reader comments from different sites reacting to the Dreadline teaser, Bennett voiced his surprise, “We knew a number of aspects about our game would be polarizing. I’m just surprised it’s the morality that people are questioning.”
“I think the human race, in general, mix a lot of horror and humor.”
When I asked him about the game’s juxtaposition of funny characters within a tragic context, Bennett responded thoughtfully, “I think the human race, in general, mix a lot of horror and humor. Why else would there be wars and soap operas? I think it’s sad that the gaming industry doesn’t try to step out of their small confines more and embrace all of these different inspirational topics. Steve and I definitely have pretty dark senses of humor, so it just came together this way.”
Dreadline may be a humorously dark take on some of history’s worst catastrophes, but when compared to the standard fare served up in AAA videogames these days, Bennett considers his game “mid-level” at best.
“It’s a strange world we live in where someone will play a shooter based on actual events and kill people for a number of hours, then watch a teaser with cartoon violence in an obvious alternate reality, and get offended,” wrote Bennett after seeing some people’s responses to Dreadline’s premise.
“You’ll learn all sorts of things, but mostly you’ll learn how unhappy and disappointed you are with yourself.”
And in the end it will probably be the game’s Tim Burton-esc mix of horror and silliness that wins players over. That, and the unique personalities of each of the game’s characters. For Kimura, they one of the Dreadline’s major appeals, “I love our characters. Coming up with great characters has been a struggle on every game I’ve ever worked on, but with Dreadline it has been fun, and effortless.”
In the end, this is what it all comes down to: creating the characters you want to create, making the games you want to make, and having fun doing it. I asked the two founders of Eerie Canal what advice they have for young videogame developers just getting started. Is it better to gain experience in with a larger developer, or get a feel for every facet of game creation by starting out on small, independent projects. Kimura was forthright, offering sage advice that could apply to people in all walks of life,
“People should think about what they actually want to be doing with their lives. If you want to make games because you love the mystery and artistry of Shadow of the Colossus, don’t go and spend 10 years working on sequels to football games. You’ll learn all sorts of things, but mostly you’ll learn how unhappy and disappointed you are with yourself.”